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Concerning coursebooks

Earlier this year there was a bit of a hoo-hah in the ELT blogging world on the topic of coursebooks. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it was Geoff Jordan who started it, claiming that coursebooks, with their atomistic and linear approach to language, fail to take into account the non-linear and disorganised way in which languages are actually learned.

Geoff’s posts inspired other bloggers to get involved in the discussion; Rose Bard and Sandy Millin both came down on the anti-coursebook side, though Sandy still seems a bit unsure about any workable alternative. There was also an entertaining exchange of views on Twitter, in which Hugh Dellar defended the coursebook by arguing that Geoff was oversimplifying the issue, tarring all coursebooks with a big dirty brush and failing to see that some coursebooks are better than others. Further baiting from Geoff led Hugh to write his own post, and then put a presentation up on YouTube which describes how his own series of coursebooks is better than others because it is less PPP-focused and contains items of lexis that you might not find in other coursebooks.

I’ve written about coursebooks on this blog before, with some posts directly criticising them (like this one and this one) and others implicating them in a wider malaise that exists across our profession (like this one and this one), so it’s pretty easy to see what side of this debate I’m on. Don’t get me wrong, Hugh Dellar is a nice bloke and he knows his stuff. He genuinely believes that his books buck the trend and offer something different. I’ve used Outcomes myself, and I can see that, compared with other coursebooks, the choice of lexis is a bit more natural, the topics are a bit less restricted, the language is presented a bit less atomistically. It’s absolutely true that some coursebooks are better than others, and his is probably one of the better ones. But at the end of the day, it’s still a COURSEbook, and this is the biggest problem as far as I’m concerned.

By definition, we are expected to use these books as our course – sure, we may adapt the materials, miss some bits out, or supplement with some other stuff, but fundamentally, a coursebook is designed to be used as the organising principle for our syllabus. The order of information (grammar, vocabulary, topics, pronunciation features, whatever) presented in the coursebook is the order in which we are expected to deliver to the students.

There’s an assumption that a single syllabus, with a predetermined order of language input, can be applied to any teaching and learning environment with equal effect. There’s also, of course, the idea that someone with no knowledge of my teaching context, my students’ needs or other factors influencing the outcomes of the courses I work on, knows better than me about what to teach my students and when. This is an idea that I personally find quite offensive.

So why am I writing this post? I’ve already said what I think about coursebooks many times before, and people like Geoff, Rose and, years earlier, Scott Thornbury and Luke Meddings, have argued against coursebooks far more effectively than me. And in any case, this most recent online debate blew over ages ago. Well, the reason the whole coursebook thing is on my mind again is that, from next month, all the full-time ESOL courses in my college will use a coursebook. This is not the place to go into detail about the reasons for this decision, but I feel I need to say that I am to a large extent responsible for it happening. This could mean that I am a terrible hypocrite, but it could also mean that I listen to the needs and preferences of my staff and students. I like to think it’s that.

But it does put me in a rather uncomfortable position. I need to be able to support my staff in the use of coursebooks to achieve outcomes that the books don’t directly lead the students towards. They can help to facilitate the achievement of some outcomes, of course, but it’s finding an appropriate role for the books within the context of the curriculum that is going to be the challenge.

I saw @ashowski tweeting about “coursebook literacy” the other night – maybe I need to develop some of that. Any ideas?

Language input through project-based learning (My IATEFL 2015 presentation)

This year I gave a presentation at IATEFL Manchester on the topic of Project-Based Learning. This draws heavily on some of the work my colleagues and I have been doing at West College Scotland in developing our full-time ESOL programmes. If you click on the link below, it should take you to the powerpoint slides that I used at the conference, along with my audio commentary. Please feel free to leave comments.

LI through PBL

He’s not the messiah, he’s a very naughty boy!

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So, that’s another IATEFL conference over. Like last year, I saw a lot of things, had some interesting discussions and have come away with a huge amount to think about. I gave a presentation of my own as well, which I’ll post on here soon, but for now I want to write about one thing in particular that has occupied my mind on the journey home.

Russell Mayne and Nicola Prentis gave an interesting presentation entitled “Where are the women in ELT?” According to their research (which, they freely admit, may not follow the most robust methodology) the split between men and women working in the ELT industry is something like 60-40 in favour of women. Yet, when it comes to the “big names” in ELT (writers of influential books, keynote speakers at conferences etc.) the ratio is overwhelmingly biased towards men. They received over 500 responses to the question “Who would you say are the ‘big names’ in ELT”, and, from the responses they received, only one woman made the top 10, and only three made the top 20. In case you missed the talk (and you probably did as it took place in a very small room at the end of the second-last day) here is the top 10 list, according to the responses that Russell and Nicola received:

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So, 60% of ELT practitioners are women but only a small minority of these women make it to high-profile, high-status positions. Obviously this is a travesty and something that needs to be addressed. Sadly though, there’s nothing particularly unusual about this statistic. I suspect that if you were to conduct the same kind of research in other professions you would get similar results. Obviously, that doesn’t make it OK, and I do not in any way want to belittle the problem of gender bias in ELT, but I was struck by something else in the top 10 list. As Nicola pointed out, all of the people in the list are “of a certain age”, and have been well-known names in our profession for many years. If Nicola and Russell (or someone who was around at the time) had asked people to name their top EFL names 20 years ago, there’s a good chance that the same names would have cropped up. They have all made significant contributions of course, and I want to make it clear that I mean no disrespect to any of them, whatever their gender or age. But the idea that the same small number of people have remained at the “top” of the profession (whatever that means) for such a long time has set me thinking. Here are some questions I am currently mulling over:

  • Why are these guys so well-known? What exactly is it they have done to achieve their high status?
  • Who were the big names in ELT before them?
  • If they have been famous for a long time, that means they became famous when they were relatively young. How come it was possible, say, 20-25 years ago, to become a “big name” in ELT in your 30s, but it seems to be more difficult nowadays?
  • What’s going to happen after they retire?

I think the first question is reasonably straightforward to answer. Apart from Raymond Murphy, whose big books are aimed at students, and Stephen Krashen, who is more of an applied linguist, they wrote books largely for people entering the profession or in the first few years of their careers, and so these books have had a lasting impression on ELT professionals around the world. Even the Murphy grammar books are often used by inexperienced teachers trying to work out what CCQs to ask their students when clarifying grammar. Their work has been inspirational and highly influential for many English language teachers, so it’s understandable that we look up to them for this. Their books and/or ideas also seem to have endured over a long period, so they have a similar level of influence over new teachers today as they did when I was starting out over 20 years ago. Most (though not all) of them have also managed to keep their profile up by continuing to tour the conference circuit, and by updating and revising their previous work.

The second question is not one I can answer with any great authority; if anyone who is even older than me wants to correct what I’m saying I’ll be very grateful. I think though that there were quite a few “method gurus” like Gattegno (Silent Way), Asher (Total Physical Response) and Lozanov (Suggestopedia), who invented their own very prescriptive methods of language teaching. There seemed to be a lot of this in the old days; one person (usually a man) would come up with a method, and would often build a business around it. They sometimes even named it after themselves (e.g. the Berlitz method or the Callan method), and in the more successful cases these individuals were able to make large amounts of money. This concept of a single charismatic leader, with a way of teaching that their “followers” must all use, has always made me think of religious cults.

Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) is a much broader church, which encompasses many of the methods mentioned above. It was within this new construct, which started to take off in the 1980s, that people like Harmer, Ur and (slightly later) Thornbury, Underhill and Scrivener made their names. Rather than promoting their own unique idea, books like Harmer’s The Practice of English Language Teaching (first published 1983) and Richards and Rogers’ Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching (first published 1986) offered us an overview of various ideas that could inform teaching practice. Others made their names through books that focused more on a specific aspect of ELT, such as Swan (Practical English Usage), Thornbury (About Language), Ur (Discussions That Work) and Underhill (Sound Foundations). What I’m trying to say is that, unlike their predecessors, these writers didn’t propose their own unique teaching method. They either presented a range of diverse ideas, or their own ideas but within a narrow area. It isn’t really possible to follow their ideas religiously because they don’t propose any particular doctrine (even Dogme is more of an attempt to get back to a purer form of CLT rather than anything particularly new).

Still, these people have managed to achieve very high status in our profession, and are still the people that everyone wants to hear speaking at conferences. Maybe this is simply because they happened to write their books at a time when ELT was quickly becoming a global industry, and therefore an ever-increasing number of people have become interested in their work. And of course, as ELT was expanding, there was a lot of money to be made (by publishers) from the kind of teacher development books that they were writing. Did they just happen to be in the right place at the right time?

It would be wrong to describe our current top TEFL celebrities as “gurus” in the same way that you might describe people like Lozanov, simply because they have never promoted themselves as such. And yet, there is a certain aura about them. It is unusual to see Jeremy Harmer at a conference just hanging about by himself; he is usually surrounded by a group of enthusiastic fans followers disciples groupies teachers, keen to know his opinion on whatever area of ELT they work in. If Scott Thornbury walks into an IATEFL session there’s a palpable frisson of excitement. If Jim Scrivener comes up with a new expression to describe a teaching technique, it will quickly find its way into the vocabularies of English teachers across the world. Of course, they are all good presenters who can command an audience well and make people believe that what they are saying is worth believing in. They don’t try to get us to become their disciples as such, but they have a lot of the key qualities that exist in charismatic leaders, meaning people are often seduced by whatever they say anyway. There’s no doubt that the big names in ELT deserve a huge amount of credit for what they have contributed to our profession. But at the end of the day, they are just men and (occasionally) women. It seems a bit odd that they should be held in such awe. Doesn’t it?

Anyway, the fact that it’s still the same old people at the top of the status tree after all these years does raise some questions. Has nobody else got anything to say? Are they somehow clinging on to their status by touring the circuit and re-hashing their old books? Or, as someone from the floor suggested in Russell and Nicola’s talk, are they merely puppets of the publishing companies, who get wheeled out to promote products that will make these companies even more money?

Whatever the case may be, the big names can’t go on forever. What will happen after they have gone? Sure, there are plenty of younger people in the business with plenty to say and lots of good points to make. Anthony Gaughan, Lindsay Clandfield, Willy Cardoso and Shelley Terrell are names that spring to my mind (only one woman? What does that say about me?). Maybe others spring to yours. However, it seems that writing a book that every English teacher and prospective English teacher will want to read is no longer an option for any would-be TEFL celebrity. The risk-averse publishers would rather produce a new edition of an old book than take a gamble on anyone new. Even coursebooks tend to be written by teams these days rather than individuals. Technology means that anyone can get people to read their ideas through a blog or website, and many people are building names for themselves in this way (Sandy Millin and Lizzie Pinard are good examples of this). The messages that are being conveyed may not be particularly varied or diverse, but the people conveying them are.

It seems unlikely that anyone will ever again achieve the almost God-like status that has been afforded to our current, but ageing, stars. The age of the TEFL messiah seems to be nearing its end. And I should know, I’ve followed a few.

Why pre-selected language aims are a waste of time (and what we should be doing instead)

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http://tkt2uabcs.blogspot.co.uk/2010/09/glossary-lesson-planning.html

I like to think I’ve made the case in previous posts that planning lessons which aim to teach individual language items, preselected by the teacher, runs counter to established theories of language acquisition. Just in case that contradicts how you were trained (it probably does), or if you think it’s just me ranting from my own narrow ESOL perspective, here are some quotes from other people to back me up. Let’s start with Jane Willis and her criticism of any lock-step approach to language teaching:

‘Spending twenty minutes on presenting and practising one single structure to perfection is likely to benefit only the very few learners who happen to be ready to use it. Some may know it already and it might be beyond the grasp of the rest. For these students, such practice is largely a waste of time.’ (Willis 1996: 15).

Then there’s the argument that the order in which we teach individual items of language (usually in order of linguistic complexity) doesn’t tie in with the order in which students acquire it:

‘Of the scores of detailed studies of naturalistic and classroom language learning reported over the last thirty years, none suggest, for example, that presentation of discrete points of grammar one at a time…bears any resemblance except an accidental one to either the order or the manner in which naturalistic or classroom acquirers learn those items.’ (Long and Robinson 1998: 16).

And here’s David Nunan making the point that if you teach an item once, and if the students seem able to use it during the lesson (which tends to be regarded as “evidence of learning”), you can’t assume that you have “done” that piece of language:

‘A learner’s mastery of a particular language item is unstable, appearing to increase and decrease at different times during the learning process.’ (Nunan 2001: 192).

Nunan’s comment also suggests that if students are getting an item of language wrong, this doesn’t mean they’re not learning it; they are just going through the process, and this process lasts a lot longer than a single lesson.

This quote from Holliday points out the problem with lessons where the aim, or the agenda, is set by the teacher:

‘…classroom events incorporate not one lesson, but many lessons – one which the teacher plans and administers, and one for each student taking part. The significance of [this] is that the teacher’s and students’ lessons are inevitably different, and are very likely to be in conflict. The students want one thing out of the classroom process, and the teacher something else.’ (Holliday 1994: 143).

Basically, the point I’m making through these quotes (and in previous posts) is that there is nothing to suggest that selecting an item of language in advance, and then setting out to “teach” that item to the students, is an effective way of facilitating language acquisition.

Of course, it’s easy enough to criticise and expose deficiencies, but what’s the alternative? Well, if we follow some of the points made by those esteemed applied linguists and ELT professionals mentioned above, we need to be designing lessons according to the following guiding principles:

·       Students acquire language when they are ready to acquire it, not when the teacher decides to teach it.

·       Students need to engage with language within a meaningful context.

·       Different students will learn different language within the same lesson, and need to be given space to do this.

·       Students need multiple opportunities to use language items over a period of time before they can realistically be expected to fully acquire it.

·       Any overt language focus and clarification is more likely to be effective if it ties in with each student’s own “learning agenda”.

OK, so how can we design lessons that follow these principles? Well, for a start we need to give the students a lot more freedom to get what they are ready to get out of the lesson. This implies doing away with pre-selected language aims altogether. But that doesn’t mean our lessons should become aimless – far from it. Lessons can aim towards the achievement of tasks – not tasks like “find out how often your partner goes to the cinema”, but proper, real-world tasks that allow learners to be exposed to authentic language and then to engage and interact with it. The learners need to be given a space, an opportunity, to interact with language in a meaningful way and then acquire whatever language they are ready to acquire while these interactions are taking place.

One way that I’m trying to do this with my students is to set tasks for students that are meaningful to them, and which allow them to interact with language as authentically as possible. While they are doing this I am feeding language to individual students as they need it. After the task has been completed I encourage them to focus on what I call NU language – language that is both New and Useful (I know that sounds cheesy but my students see through the cheesiness and get the point anyway). The students look back at the language they used, or were exposed to, during the task, and record the items that were new to them and which they feel they will be able to use again. They then share what they have recorded and give each other some example situations where they can see themselves using it. Their homework is to go away and put this into practice, and then in a subsequent lesson I follow it up by asking them to tell each other what NU language from the previous week they have been able to use, describing how effective it was in allowing them to perform the tasks they needed to perform.

This is probably not very innovative. I’m sure a lot of people reading this do the same, or something similar. It’s a logical approach to language teaching, particularly (but not exclusively) in an English-speaking country where a huge amount of exposure to English can take place outside the classroom. But it’s good because it follows the guiding principles described above. It actually ties in with SLA theory because it allows learners to dictate what they learn. Rather than pushing them through some controlled activities that require them to use items of language that they’re either not ready to learn, already know or have no need to know, it allows them the freedom to identify the language that is most useful for them, and which they genuinely want to learn. Following on from Holliday’s comment above, this approach gives the students more freedom to follow their own agenda rather than just dancing to my tune. They all have different agendas and they will probably select different language as their NU language, but that’s OK. In fact, that’s the point. Allowing the students to connect the language learning process with what they want to do outside the classroom also helps to develop their motivation, which in turn has a positive impact on their learning (Dornyei and Ushioda 2011).

So, we need to stop planning lessons with aims like “To clarify and practice such and such a grammar item”, or “to introduce and develop students’ ability to use the following lexical items”, or objectives like “students will be able to use such and such a grammar item in the context of so and so.” There’s nothing to suggest that the achievement of aims like this actually leads to any learning taking place.

Instead, we need to shift the aim away from tiny specific language items and onto the tasks themselves. Aims like this:

  • Working in groups, students will plan and organise a trip to a local place of interest of their choice.
  •  Students will create an information leaflet for visitors to the town they live in.
  • Students will organise an event to raise awareness to an issue of local or national interest.
  • Students will identify an area of their health or wellbeing that they want to improve, and work out a plan to do this.
  • Students will research and prepare a presentation comparing two different education systems.

These are all tasks that I’ve set my students recently. Of course, you could argue that these are more outcomes than aims, and that they’re more projects than tasks. Call them what you like, I don’t mind. They’re nice big meaty tasks (or projects, if you prefer) that the students can properly immerse themselves in, with plenty of scope for them to have their own input – in the process and on the final product. Once they are focused on the achievement of this outcome, the linguistic content of the lesson pretty much falls into place; they learn whatever they need to learn in order to achieve the tasks or complete the project. Including frequent reflection tasks to focus the students on NU language ensures that learning takes place, that each student gets to focus on language that they are ready and able to learn, and that this language gets used in authentic and therefore memorable contexts.

It’s not particularly new or fancy, but it is nicely grounded in established SLA theory. Nevertheless, it’s not something you would be likely to learn to do on a teacher training course either. Why is that, do you think?

References:

Dornyei, Z. and Ushioda, E. 2011, Motivation, Language Identity and the L2 Self, Bristol: Multilingual Matters.

Holliday, A. 1994, Appropriate Methodology and Social Context, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Long, M. and Robinson, P. 1998, ‘Focus on form: Theory, research and practice’. In Doughty, C., and  Williams, J. (eds.) Focus on form in classroom language acquisition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Nunan, D. 2001, ‘Teaching grammar in context’, in Candlin and Mercer (eds.) English language teaching in its social context (pp. 191-199), London: Routledge.

Willis, J. 1996, A framework for task-based learning, Harlow: Longman.

Don’t blame us: the real problem with ELT

There’s been a little flurry of blog posts about Demand High ELT over the past week. I think it was Geoff Jordan that started it with two posts in quick succession, prompting me to write one of my own, but there have been some other interesting posts like this one from Luiz Otavio Barros and this one from Mike Harrison. There seem to be quite a lot of people with criticisms or reservations about Demand High – what exactly is it, is it anything new, do we actually need it anyway, that sort of thing. In this post I’m going to try not to write too much about Demand High itself, and more about the interesting questions that it is raising. Presumably one of the reasons some teachers are reacting negatively to Demand High is that it is based on the premise that there is a problem with our profession. Not just that there’s a problem with our profession, but that the problem lies in the way we teach. A natural reaction to this would be to ask “Who says there’s a problem? What evidence is there?” Then, if we focus on the “solutions” being offered by Demand High ELT, a lot of teachers seem to be saying “This is what I do anyway. You’re telling us to solve a non-existent problem by doing what we already do. It’s all a big fuss about nothing.” Now, it’s true that there are a lot of very good teachers out there, people who care about their students and do everything they can to maximise the classroom experience. They understand the need to individualise learning and to identify opportunities for language input as they occur in the lesson. They realise that students acquire language in different ways, at different speeds, and in different orders, and they plan lessons that take all of this into account. They appreciate that the materials they use and any plan that they take into the classroom are subsidiary to what happens with the learners during the actual lesson itself. For these teachers, Demand High is a bit of a non-event. They don’t need it. It is natural then that a lot of teachers around the world, good teachers, are a bit put out by the suggestion that they are doing it wrong when they are quite clearly demanding as highly of their students as Scrivener and Underhill suggest they should – if not higher. But how did these teachers get to be so good? Was it because the world is awash with materials that facilitate this type of teaching? Was it because they did a training course that gave them the skills to do this? I would suggest that in most cases the answer is no. In our profession good teachers become good teachers in spite of the system they work within, not because of it. Let’s look at the initial training courses on offer, the most reputable ones being the Cambridge CELTA and the Trinity CertTESOL. OK, I know that these courses vary a lot from centre to centre, and it’s possible for a centre to interpret the criteria in a number of different ways, but these courses still tend to contain these characteristics:

  • A candidate’s teaching ability is assessed on the basis of their ability to teach one-off lessons for a maximum of 60 minutes.
  • Within these 60 minutes a candidate needs to demonstrate a range of techniques.
  • Candidates need to provide a very detailed lesson plan in advance of an observed lesson.
  • This lesson plan needs to state the candidate’s pre-determined aims.
  • A key criterion to measure success is whether or not the lesson achieved these pre-determined aims.

The first problem with these features is that they create a construct for lesson observation that doesn’t reflect real teaching situations. In real life most lessons are more than an hour long and time available for planning is a small fraction of the time trainee teachers tend to spend writing their observed lesson plans. What happens on these courses then is that a very artificial and unrealistic situation is created, and trainee teachers are assessed on their ability to meet pre-existing criteria within this artificial situation. But the other problem is that these courses lead trainees to assume that lesson success is all about stating clear aims in advance and then going in there and achieving them. There is a presupposition that all students learn the same stuff at the same time – all you have to do is create a meaningful context, clarify the language and then give them an activity that shows them using it. This is what trainee teachers become competent at, and courses like the CELTA and CertTESOL allow them to believe that this is all there is to it. Good, experienced teachers know different. They know that the furious pace and the multitude of stages that they crammed into those 60-minute observations can’t be maintained throughout a three-hour lesson. They know that good lessons can only exist within a good course, and that the most wonderful lesson is worth very little if it doesn’t build on prior learning and lead on to something else of value. They know that teaching a piece of language once does not mean that your students have all learnt it, and that a single lesson observation cannot be used to determine whether the students actually learned what the teacher wanted them to learn. Not only that, but they also know that it’s folly to expect all the students to learn the same thing at the same time. They know that their own aims are a lot less important than their learners’ aims, and that some of the most successful lessons are the ones where any pre-determined teacher aims are shelved completely in favour of learning opportunities that they identify after the lesson has started. Basically, what I’m saying is that initial training courses in ELT do not prepare their candidates to become effective teachers. They provide a lot of low-level classroom management techniques, and maybe that’s as much as anyone should expect from a 4-week course. But they also instil beliefs that have widely been discredited in the world of applied linguistics. Languages are not learned in a linear fashion, which basically means that a lot of what trainee teachers are encouraged to do is completely out of step with received wisdom about language acquisition. If you are a teacher trainer you may well be reading this and thinking “That may be the case on some courses, but mine aren’t like that. I produce good teachers.” Which is great. I know that it’s possible on a CELTA or CertTESOL course to get trainees to understand that language learning is a chaotic process, to value learner input and to encourage them to react more to their learners rather than just teaching the plan. But it isn’t easy to be one of those trainers, because you still have to work within the confines of the course, and the course is not designed to facilitate this type of teaching. Again, you are a good trainer despite the course you are teaching, not because of it. Once people finish their initial training course and start teaching, they find that they can’t spend all those hours planning their lessons, so thank goodness the school they’re working in gives them a coursebook to follow. That reduces planning time and allows them to pretty much get away with doing a full-time teaching job armed with a rudimentary understanding of the subject and a few strategies for setting up activities and clarifying language. But hang on, what does the coursebook do? It provides a structural syllabus, presenting language items atomistically in order of linguistic complexity. Again, it presupposes linear, lock-step learning. Not only that, but it presupposes that the same content will be of equal interest and value to all learners across the world. Surely that’s preposterous, and yet it’s still seen as a perfectly acceptable idea. So, if we go back to the original questions that people are asking in relation to Demand High, I would argue that yes, there is a problem in ELT. But teachers aren’t the problem. It’s not our fault that we were trained to teach in a way that contradicts how people learn. It’s not our fault that our managers make us teach courses using books based on outdated principles. Telling teachers to demand higher might help to turn a few not-very-good teachers into slightly better teachers, but they will still be teaching within this ineffectual and potential damaging construct. It’s not the teachers that are the problem, it’s the system that they have to work within. Of course, nothing that I am saying here is new. A lot of the problems with coursebooks were exposed by Scott Thornbury and Luke Meddings back at the turn of the millennium. Jane Willis was railing against atomistic language teaching even longer ago than that. And yet task-based learning and Dogme are still on the fringes of ELT, with the global coursebook still dominating the content of most language courses. Perhaps this is the most worrying thing of all; that the hegemonic forces (Cambridge, Trinity, Oxford, Pearson, MacMillan etc.) are still managing to control what we teach and how we teach it – not because it’s the best way to teach (on the contrary – it very obviously isn’t) but because they have made a lot of money and they want to continue to make a lot more. That’s not a good enough reason – not for me, and not for any teachers who want the best for their students.

Jordan, Scriverhill and Guru-bashing

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Not for the first time, I’ve been sucked into an online discussion with Geoff Jordan. If you’re not familiar with Geoff’s work you should check out his blog here. As well as being able to write with considerable authority and clarity on ELT and SLA-related topics, Geoff has a bit of a reputation for being very forthright in expressing his views. If he thinks that an idea is crap, he’ll say so. If he thinks that an individual’s work is overrated, he’ll cut them down to size. As a result, Geoff has attracted negative comments from some of the many nice people in our profession who think his criticisms are personal attacks, and that he’s being unfair. And most of us are nice people. I bet Geoff’s a nice person too. Certainly, he is always keen to point out that his criticisms are about people’s ideas and not about them as individuals. Anyway, I’ve found myself being quoted on his blog, in a post that could be interpreted as a bit of ELT-celebrity-bashing. Although I don’t retract the comments he has quoted, I do feel a bit uncomfortable about being complicit in an attack on Jim Scrivener and Adrian Underhill’s Demand High meme. I’ll try to explain why.

Geoff originally wrote a critique of Demand High, with one of his main criticisms being that it is merely a vehicle for Scrivener and Underhill to promote themselves. They are exploiting their position as ELT celebrities to gain publicity for a product that they can be paid to take round the conference circuit and write books and articles about. In my comment on this post I agreed with Geoff that when you look at what Demand High offers us – a series of small tweaks and low-level techniques – it doesn’t really amount to very much at all, which is very disappointing. I believed the hype to begin with, hoping that Demand High was going to lead to the “discussion about re-inventing our profession” that it boldly claims to be on the website. So when I see that all Underhill and Scrivener have to offer us are some checking questions and drilling techniques, it’s a bit of an anti-climax.

However, I’m reluctant to be as cynical as Geoff and accuse Scrivener and Underhill of deliberately selling us a dud product. Instead, I think they realise that if they were to start promoting ideas that really did prompt us to reinvent our profession, everyone would accuse them of hypocrisy. After all, they have both been very influential over the last 20 years and are therefore partly responsible for our profession being what it is. Geoff thinks that Scrivener and Underhill actually believe that the stuff they are selling us through Demand High is good stuff. I think that they know it’s all a bit half-baked, and they are secretly wishing for someone to take it further and come up with something that actually is new. But it can’t be them, as they are part of the establishment that needs to be overthrown in order for this to happen.

My mentioning of the establishment and the need for wholesale change in Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) prompted (I think) Geoff to write a second post about Demand High, this time quoting a lot of my comments and then reflecting back on how things used to be, earlier in his career. Reading Geoff’s latest post makes me want to raise two issues which are related to the whole Scriverhill-Demand-High thing. First of all, there’s the concept of the ELT Guru, which seems to have existed in language teaching for at least 100 years. You get one guy (it’s usually a man) who comes up with a “method” of teaching that is, in some way, distinct from anything that existed before. There was Cattegno’s Silent Way, Lozanov’s Suggestopedia, Asher’s TPR – all of these “communicative” methods from the 1970s were, in effect, commercial products that were being peddled by individuals who were able to make a lot of money. You can go back further to Berlitz and his carefully packaged language teaching method that is based on behaviourism. What Scrivener and Underhill are doing with Demand High, therefore, is nothing new, and demonstrates how the cult of the ELT celebrity is still alive and well today. Except for the fact that the product they are peddling lacks substance, which infuriates Geoff and disappoints me. Geoff’s point though is that the Demand High product needs to be critically examined, in the same way that Cattegno, Lozanov and everyone else back in the day received a lot of criticism and had to debate and justify their ideas. If the product doesn’t stand up to scrutiny then this must be pointed out – Geoff and I agree on this.

I’d like to raise another issue though by telling a story of my own. While Geoff enjoyed a wonderfully creative and exciting spell in the 1980s at ESADE Idiomas, I had a similar experience in the late 1990s at IH Budapest. The issues were different, but the buzz and the enthusiasm among teachers was very similar to what Geoff describes. Of course, by the 1990s methods like the Silent Way and Suggestopedia were seen as curiosities, period pieces. Their legacy was there for all to see in the classroom – people used cuisinaire rods and guided visualisation activities, for example – but they were used within the now established, all-encompassing paradigm known as Communicative Language Teaching. Other ideas like the Lexical Approach and Task-Based Learning were also emerging and causing plenty of debate and discussion, though these ideas were also known as “communicative” approaches rather than heralding any kind of potential paradigm shift.

The key thing here is that, in between Geoff’s glory days in Spain and mine in Hungary, something very important had happened. The commercial potential of ELT as a truly global industry had been recognised by publishing companies, and also by the qualification awarding bodies at Cambridge and Trinity. If ELT could be packaged as a single entity, and if they could convince us all that the same methods, approaches and (get this) materials could be used all over the world, these corporations could make an absolute fortune. The McDonaldisation of education.

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So, by the time I got properly into ELT, the coursebook was king and pretty much dictated syllabus content. John and Liz Soars were living on an island in the Carribean (probably), metaphorically sipping cocktails with Phil Collins and Richard Branson. Their Headway series of coursebooks followed a grammatical syllabus, presenting language in order of structural complexity. The fact that it prioritised structures over communicative purpose meant that it contradicted the most fundamental principle underlying CLT, but by this stage most people had forgotten the true meaning of Communicative Language Teaching and the term had come to mean any approach that involves students talking to each other. Besides, the structural syllabus was familiar and non-threatening, and Headway and subsequent global coursebooks were user-friendly and inoffensive. You could come straight off the CELTA, follow a coursebook and pretty much get away with it.

Like Geoff and his colleagues, we would still try out some whacky stuff in the classroom, but it was always as a kind of one-off digression. I would use a TPR activity here, a Silent Way lesson there, or maybe follow a task-based model, but this would only happen within the confines of a course that followed a coursebook. Then the management at IH Budapest decided to do something a bit different. They developed a new, multi-level course that was modular rather than sequential. It still used coursebooks, but it used them as materials rather than as the organising principle of the course. A number of different coursebooks were chopped up (not literally), re-ordered, and mixed in with bits of supplementary materials to create several modules at each level. Learners would complete as many modules as they needed to before “bubbling up” to the next level.

It didn’t seem like much – after all, we were still using the same materials – but taking ownership of which bits of books to use and the order in which to use them liberated us from the confines of the structural syllabus. This taught me to be a lot less respectful of coursebooks, and to realise that linguistic complexity is only one way of sequencing a syllabus. Not only that, but from a point of view of language acquisition, ordering language in this way is as random as any other way. It was this revelation at IH Budapest that has allowed me to (I hope) become a far more autonomous and communicative teacher. I feel I can (and should) base my courses on content selected by me and my students, not by some distant, unseeing but all-knowing coursebook writer.

The reason I’m telling this story is because the Director of Education at IH Budapest at the time, the person who devised and led the development of this modular syllabus, was Jim Scrivener. He sometimes came across as a bit too nice, but Jim had good ideas and knew how to convey them. He got the best out of teachers by helping them to focus less on what they were teaching and, instead, to prioritise who they were teaching.

Maybe this is why I’m so frustrated by Demand High, but I don’t want to dismiss it. My reluctance to be as critical as Geoff Jordan isn’t to do with the fact that I know Jim personally. It’s because I think I understand what he and Adrian Underhill would like to change in ELT. In fact, I think they want what Geoff wants. But what they are offering falls way short of achieving this, and I find it hard to accept that it’s because they don’t have any better ideas. They have ideas but are not in a position to express them because it would undermine their own reputations. Or maybe they just think it’s someone else’s turn to be the next ELT guru. Or, maybe, they have sown the seeds of a bottom-up paradigm shift that will ultimately destabilise and disempower the ELT establishment. Or maybe I’m giving them too much credit. Who’s going to ask them?

2014 and Me

It’s now 2015, which means I’ve left it a bit late for a review post of 2014; most people put these out at some point between Christmas and New Year. I didn’t quite get round to it then, but so many big things happened in 2014 that I feel it would be wrong to let the year pass without acknowledging them in some way. So here’s a brief look at some important bits of last year for me.

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In April I went to IATEFL for the second time in my life. I like to think that the presentation I gave contributed in a (very small) way to the general sense of discomfort with the way things are in ELT. I was having a bit of a pop at established approaches to lesson planning, while Russell Mayne was (far more effectively) debunking any ideas that have become established truths in ELT but have no scientific evidence to back them up. Meanwhile, on the “main stage”, Scott Thornbury and Jeremy Harmer were having a “conversation” about Communicative Language Teaching that could have explored some of the issues that others were trying to raise but instead demonstrated that, having become part of the establishment, these guys don’t seem to have the bottle or the inclination to tackle the crossroads we seem to be at.

Those who attended the conference were all so uncertain about the future of our industry that when Sugata Mitra told us we were “obsolete”, half the audience gave him a standing ovation! Clearly things need to change, but replacing teachers with computers is definitely not the answer, Sugata.

In terms of my own job, 2014 was the year that I started to properly embrace Project-Based Learning – essentially Task-Based Learning but with really long tasks. This seems to be an approach that makes an awful lot of sense, in my context at least, and I’ll be presenting something about it at the ES(O)L SIG day of IATEFL 2015 in April.

I also got a new job, which is the same as the old job but a lot bigger. As a result I haven’t been teaching as much as I used to, which I don’t think is good for me. Hopefully things will settle down a bit more in 2015 and I’ll be able to spend more time in the classroom.

Probably the thing that happened in 2014 that had the biggest impact on the way I think was the huge amount of reading I’ve had to do for my EdD course. I’ve never been very political, and I had always rather naively assumed that the world is in a terrible state as a result of incompetence rather than by design. However, the unit I did on education policy required me to read about socio-political, economic and philosophical theories and their impact on education, and I realised that a lot of the current mess has been created on purpose. I genuinely used to think that such notions were only written by conspiracy theorists. It was only when I started reading academic papers and books by the people responsible for devising and implementing the theories that I realised how deliberate it all is. I started to realise how greed and self-interest, thinly disguised as ‘entrepreneurialism’, were the key values required to be successful in a corporate-driven globalised society. I started to see how the UK, having bought into this model of society since the 1980s, was already in a place that was deeply unpalatable for anyone who believes in social justice or the distribution of wealth, and how the rest of the world is going the same way. Words like hegemony became part of my vocabulary – though I’m still not confident about its pronunciation.

Inevitably, the stuff I was reading about started to find its way into my blog posts as I tried to get my head round big issues like Neoliberalism, Globalisation and Human Capital Theory by relating them to English Language Teaching. Perhaps understandably though, not many people were interested in reading about these things – maybe a bit heavy going. More people visited my blog in 2014 than in the previous year, but the most popular post by far was the rather irreverent one I knocked out on the train back from IATEFL. I posted the heavy ones anyway, even though I found writing about this stuff really quite depressing. Perhaps the most depressing thing was the apparent inevitability of it all; there didn’t seem to be a way of changing the world to make it more equal or socially just. If only something unusual would happen, something big that would allow me and others who felt like me to have our voices heard…

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I never asked for a referendum on Scottish independence. A couple of years ago, the idea of an independent Scotland seemed to me to be nothing more than a fanciful notion, something that appealed to sentimental Braveheart-lovers. We’d had devolution for a while, and that seemed to work well for us. But the ‘national conversation’ developed and I, along with the rest of the country, started to consider Scottish independence a bit more seriously. As the rhetoric from the Yes campaign started to unfold, it became apparent that this referendum wasn’t about flag-waving patriotism, or bashing the English, or any other kind of distasteful xenophobia that is often associated with national parties. It wasn’t even about nationalism.

The Yes campaign exposed the injustices that exist in Britain and across much of western society, and boldly declared ‘This isn’t for us’. And it wasn’t about the English and wanting to give them a kicking for being English. It was about allowing the people who live in Scotland (not all of whom are Scottish, of course) to govern Scotland, rather than allowing ourselves to be governed by people who we frequently don’t vote for, who seem to care very little about our well-being, and who created this self-serving neoliberal society in the first place. It was about democratic representation and social justice. It was about rejecting neoliberalism and its self-serving values, and doing it with the whole world watching us.

It was the possible impact of a Yes vote on the whole world that really excited me. As the momentum behind the Yes campaign started to build, everyone who has a stake in maintaining an unequal, neoliberal society, totally started shitting themselves. You could see the fear in David Cameron’s eyes, but it wasn’t just him. Barack Obama, several leaders of EU countries, the prime minister of China, and then of course all kinds of bankers and corporate business leaders. For a moment it looked like Scotland was going to lead the world towards an epiphany, a New Enlightenment if you like, where we would all start to wake up to the awfulness of the situation that governments and corporations have put us in.

Of course, Scotland voted No, which means that 55% of its people are either too comfortable with or too ignorant of the situation as it stands. Within a week, the UK was at war with the Middle East (again), the government had given the go-ahead for fracking in central Scotland, and David Cameron had called for a referendum to leave the EU. A bit like the 1978 world cup, we had had a tremendous opportunity to do something amazing and we blew it.

The immediate aftermath of the referendum left me profoundly depressed, so much so that I felt paralysed. The best I could do blog-wise was to publish a post entitled “Oh, what’s the point?” which certainly summed up how I was feeling but which was hopelessly nihilistic and therefore completely useless.

Since then I have come to terms with the No vote, but it still rankles as a wasted opportunity. One good thing though is the way it encouraged us all to engage with big issues – not just political ones, but issues that go to the core of our individual and collective identity. I’m not sure what 2015 will bring – it could be awful. But now I feel better able to cope with any awfulness.